"Skip out, Pete," Si reminded the boy. "The rest o' you boys stack your guns and foller Pete."
"Hadn't we batter take our guns along?" suggested Monty, holding on to his with grim fearfulness.
"No. Stack 'em; stack 'em, I tell you," said Si impatiently. "And be quick about it. They'll all git ahead o' you. Don't you see the rest stackin' arms?"
The boys obeyed as if dazed, and started to follow little Pete's lead toward the clump of willows.
The boy, full of the old nick, found an Orderly's horse nipping the grass close by the path to the spring and, boy like, jumped on its back.
The clatter of the canteens frightened the horse, and he broke into a dead run.
[Illustration: LITTLE PETE'S HORSE BOLTS. 168]
"Do ye s'pose the fight's really over?" whispered Pete to Alf Russell, who was just behind him. "Don't you think the rebels just let go to get a fresh hold?"
"Seems so to me," answered Alf. "Seems to me there was just millions of 'em, and we only got away with a little passel, in spite of all that shootin'. Why, when we come out on the ridge the valley down there seemed fuller of 'em than it was at first."
"We oughtn't to get too far away from our guns," said Monty Scruggs.
"Them woods right over there may be full o' rebels watching to jump us when we get far enough away."
"I don't like the looks of that hill to the left," said Gid Mackall, nervously. "An awful lot o' them went behind it, and I didn't see any come out."
"There, them bushes over there are shaking--they're coming out again,"
said Harry Joslyn, turning to run back for his gun.
"No, not there," nervously interjected Humphrey's, turning with him; "ain't there something stirring down there by the crick?"
"No, no," said Sandy Baker, desperately. "It's just that blame fool Pete. Come on! Come on! We've got to. We were ordered to. Le's make a rush for it, like the men in the Indian stories done when they was sent for water."
They acted on the suggestion with such vim that when Pete's horse tripped at the edge of the little run, and sent Pete over its head with a splash into the mud and water, the rest tumbled and piled on top of him.
The men on the hill, who had noticed it, set up a yell of laughter, which scared the boys worse than ever, for they thought it meant the rebels were on them again.
"Now, what new conniption's struck them dumbed little colts?" said Si, irritably, as he strode down to them, pulled them out, and set them on their feet, with a shaking and some strong words.
"Is the rebels coming again?" gasped Pete, rubbing the mud and water out of his eyes.
"No, you little fool," said Si. "The rebels ain't comin'. They're goin'
as fast as their horses kin carry 'em. They've got through comin' for today.
"There ain't one of 'em within cannon-shot, and won't be till we go out and hunt 'em up again. You've come near spilin' the spring with your tormented foolishness. What on earth possessed you to climb that boss?
You need half killin', you do. Go up higher there and fill your canteens from where the water's clear. Be slow and careful, and don't rile the water. Say, I see some nice sassafras over there. I always drink sassafras tea this time o' year. It cleans the blood. I'm goin' over and see if I can't git a good root while you're fillin' your canteens."
Si walked out some distance in front of them, pulling as he walked some of the tender, fragrant, spicy young leaves of the sassafras, and chewing them with gusto. Arriving at the top of a rise he selected a young shrub, pulled it up, carefully loosed its root from the mulchy soil, and cut it off with his knife. His careless deliberation calmed the overwrought nerves of the boys, and when he returned they had their canteens filled, and walked back composedly to the fires, when they suddenly remembered that they were as hungry as Si and Shorty, and fell to work cooking their suppers.
"Is that the way with the rebel cavalry?" asked Monty Scruggs, with his mouthful of crackers and meat. "Do they come like a hurricane, and disappear again like an April shower?"
"That's about it," answered Shorty disdainfully. "That's the way with all cavalry, dad-burn 'em. They're like a passel o' fice pups. They're all yelp and bark, and howl and showin' o' teeth. They're jest goin' to tear you to pieces. But when you pick up a stone or a club, or git ready to give 'em a good kick they're gone, the devil knows where. They're only an aggravation. You never kin do nothin' with 'em, and they kin do nothin' with you. I never kin understand why God Almighty wasted his time in makin' cavalry of any kind, Yank or rebel. All our own cavalry's good for is to steal whisky and chickens from honest soldiers of the infantry. The infantry's the only thing. It's like the big dog that comes up without any special remarks, and sets his teeth in the other dog. The thing only ends when one dog or the other is badly whipped and somethin's bin accomplished."
"Will we have to fight them cavalry again tomorrow jest the same way?"
asked little Pete, still somewhat nervously.
"Lord only knows," answered Shorty indifferently, feeling around for his pipe. "A feller never knows when he's goin' to have to fight rebel cavalry any more'n he knows when he's goin' to have the toothache. The thing just happens, and that's all there is of it."
Si and Shorty, having finished their suppers, lighted their pipes, and strolled up through the regiment to talk over with the others the events of the day and the probabilities of the morrow.
Left alone, the tongues of the excited boys became loosened, and ran like the vibrations of a cicada's rattle.
"Wasn't it just wonderful?" said Monty Scruggs. "It looked as if a million circuses had suddenly let out over there.
"'The Assyrians came down like a wolf on the fold, And their cohorts were gleaming with purple and gold.'
"Only there didn't seem much purple and gold about them. Seemed mostly brown rags and slouch hats and long swords. Gracious, did you ever see anything as long and wicked as them swords! Seemed that every one was pointing directly at me, and they'd reach me the very next jump."
"Of course, you thought they were all looking at you," said Alf Russell.
"That's your idea, always, wherever you are. You think you're spouting on the platform, and the center of attraction. But I knew that they were all looking at me, as folks generally do."
"More self-conceit," sneered Harry Joslyn. "Just because you're so good looking, Alf. I knew that they weren't bothering about any boy orator, who does most of his shooting with his mouth, nor any young pill-peddler, who sings in the choir, and goes home with the prettiest girl. They were making a dead set on the best shot in the crowd, the young feller who'd come into the war for business, and told his folks at home before he started that he was going to shoot Jeff Davis with his own hand before he got back. That was me, I saw the Colonel of one o'
the regiments point his sword straight at me as they came across the run, and tell his men to be sure and get me of all others."
"Why didn't you shoot him, if you're such a deadshot?" asked Gid Mackall.
"Why, I was just loading my gun, when I saw him, and as I went to put on the cap you were shaking so that it jarred the cap out of my hand, and before I could get another, the smoke became so thick I couldn't see anything."
"I shaking?" said Gib, with deep anger. "Now, Harry Josyn--"
"Come, boys; don't have a scrap, now," pleaded the serious-minded Alf.
"Just think how many dead men are lying around. It looks like raising a disturbance at a funeral."
"That's so," said Jake Humphreys. "I don't think any of us is in shape to throw up anything to another about shaking. I own up that I was never so scared in all my life, and I feel now as if I ought to get down on my knees before everybody, and thank God Almighty that my life was spared.
I ain't ashamed to say so."
"Bully for you, Jake," said Monty Scruggs, heartily. "We all feel that way, but hain't the nerve to say so. I wish the Chaplain would come around and open a meeting of thanksgiving and prayer."
"I tell you what's the next best thing," suggested Jake Humphreys. "Let Alf Russell sing one of those good old hymns they used to sing in the meetings back at home."
"Home!" How many thousands of miles away--how many years of time away--seemed to those flushed, overwrought boys, bivouacking on the deadstrewn battlefield, the pleasant cornfields, the blooming orchards, the drowsy hum of bees, the dear homes, sheltering fathers, mothers, and sisters; the plain white churches, with their faithful, grayhaired pastors, of the fertile plains of Indiana.
Alf Russell lifted up his clear, far-reaching boyish tenor, that they had heard a thousand times at devout gatherings, at joyful weddings, at sorrowing funerals, in that grandest and sweetest of hymns:
"All hail the power of Jesus' name; Let angels prostrate fall.
Bring forth the royal-diadem.
And crown Him Lord of All."
As far as his voice could reach, the rough soldiers, officers and men, stopped to listen to him--listened to him with emotions far too deep for the cheers that usually fly to the lips of soldiers at anything that stirs them. The higher officers quit talking of the plans of the morrow; the minor ones stopped, pen in hand, over their reports and requisitions; the busy Surgeons stayed their keen knives; the fussy Orderly-Sergeants quit bothering about rations and details; the men paused, looked up from their cards and cooking until the hymn was sung through.
The voice was so pure, so fresh, so redolent of all that had graced and sweetened their far-off past, that it brought to each swarming emotions for which there was no tongue.
"Bully for you, Alf; you're a sweet singer in Israel," said Si, brushing away a suspicion of a tear. "Spread out your blankets, boys, and lay down. Git all the sleep you kin, for there's lots o' work for us tomorrow. There goes tattoo!"